Startling Sleepwalkers, On the Prospects of Waking Them from Their Nightmares.

The New York Times article on Paul Kingsnorth and Dark Mountain.

I’m left with a feeling that – if my response were to be reported in The New York Times – the headline would read,

“Petulant Doomer Disappointed at Being Misunderstood!”

As calm as this story is, its passive aggressive antibodies hidden from view by a reasonable tone and a desire to be fair, it’s an example of how those who wish not to understand tell a story. It appears to be a neutral report while framing an event as a particular kind of story. This framing then makes whatever might have been disruptive easy to dismiss.

This dynamic is especially relevant in this case. Dark Mountain, from the original Manifesto through the many and various and disparate works of those who have felt an affinity with its message, has always at its core addressed this question. We are trapped by our stories. How can we break free?

So, here we have a story about Dark Mountain. Presented in one of the most prestigious journals of the day. An airing of questions that have been virtually ignored by the wider press.

But then, it has morphed into a story about a man. Common sense and journalistic practice tell us this is a “good idea.”

“Human Interest!”

“Let’s profile the leader/founder of this group and see how he ticks!”

“How else can a story be told?”

“How else can we be fair to our readers?”

How else indeed.

A few gross misconceptions:

Dark Mountain is not a “Group.”

It is not a “Movement.”

It does not have “Leaders.”

It is not about “Giving up.”

Yet here is a profile of an individual. Insightful, in its way, yet disingenuous. It smoothly takes what might be a chance to put something never broached before a mainstream audience and turns it into another version of an old story.

And, what is brilliant about this dance at the edge is how it flirts with making the substance of this new viewpoint – at least as projected through the prism of its subject, a profile of a single man – accessible.

There’s a genre of journalism spreading into other public media, movies, best-selling books. It takes as its challenge this dance at the edge. An attempt to “air” certain unmentionables, but to do so in a way that deflates them.

“Let’s not wake the sleepwalkers.”

“Let’s not interfere with their slumbers.”

“Leave them to their nightmares.”

The story followed by a Comments section. There might be a few actual responses buried in the chaff. I’ll never know. I’ve learned long ago not to delve into the chamber of unleashed Id that makes up the comments section of any major news outlet. A place where dreamers go to mutter and mumble, snort and snore their way back into their slumbers. A moat around the castle of business-as-usual defended by trolls….

A telling moment in this narrative is the way Kingsnorth is presented as a lone hero/villain. Dougald Hine just his “first follower….”

An interviewer needs to be able to penetrate modesty. There are people who, even when talking to The New York Times, do not succumb to self-promotion.

As far as I know Paul and Dougald found each other. Influenced each other. They wrote a manifesto together.

This manifesto business really does need to be translated for an American audience. In Britain the term is accepted matter-of-fact. No irony intended.

Paul and Dougald wrote and published a short essay. They declared they found themselves in a new location. Made some assertions. Asked some questions that came to mind as a new territory hove into sight. They found a telling image to stand as a metaphor. Jeffer’s visions calling to them from a lost Bohemia.

Many others – not by New York Times standards – a few hundred people – gathered. We found reading their description of this place that it felt familiar. We shared an enthusiasm both for the clarity such a vision presented as well as the prospect of finding that we weren’t alone. On the web, and in the gatherings called “Festivals” since that is a common jargon, we found energy in discovering and sharing this broad and open-ended perspective. All this activity describes a moment. A catalytic moment enabling a myriad of responses and opening channels of communication outside the common narrative.

A place for communion not negotiation.

Whatever The New York Times might think, “Dark Mountain” and “Occupy X” are not at all similar. Dark Mountain is not a forum for those striving to negotiate a joint course of action. It doesn’t exist as an entity with an agenda to be carried out by conventional, or unconventional, means.

Of course if we narrow our focus to even a fair reading of one individual’s path up the slopes of Jeffer’s Dark Mountain, then it is easy to confound this distinction.

Paul’s tone and way of working does at times tend to flirt with the language of movement and leadership. He comes from this world after all. – One small correction. It wasn’t “his idea” to tone this language back after the first or second gathering. There was intense push-back. Mainly from a few women. Not “challengers to a leader.” Individuals asking to be able to express their voices in a milieu that promised such a possibility. Even as certain dynamics, accidentally or intentionally, were moving to steamroll us all into yet another movement.

I don’t bring this up to criticize Paul. I doubt he put it that way. The writer assumed…. This issue points out just how powerful the pull of the old stories. The grip they have on us even as we work to leave them behind.

When attempting to introduce the public to a place where a community has come together without a leader it is distorting to focus on any one person, even a “founder.” Setting up one person and their personality to color the whole. But this is how it’s done. “Human interest” and all that! These are the stories found in the paper of record, the stories that predominate in the culture those of us in sight of Dark Mountain critique and work to distinguish ourselves from.

On to the handling of ritual….

National Geographic, brought to you by Caterpillar and Occidental Petroleum for all these years, pioneered a distancing trope. Showing us rituals torn from their context. “Aren’t they cute!” And “quaint,”

“So quirky!”

True for indigenous tribes photographed in the brief interval between “discovery” and the arrival of the bulldozers and drilling rigs.

It’s equally true of any account of what took place at a Dark Mountain Festival.

What is significant about attempts to rediscover ritual, at these and a few other events, has been how creators and participants become deeply aware of the fragility of sincerity in our time. How difficult, fraught – part of our predicament – such an effort is.

What all these attempts to “report” on the “natives” have in common is an easy acceptance of the corrosive effects of such a disembodied view.

“You had to be there.” The truth of this statement hidden behind a knowing smirk.

It’s more than a plaint after nostalgia. Unless we are present inside a ritual, open in our most vulnerable sincerity to receive its mystery, it will always seem lacking. There’s no news in declaring such attempts appear a bit hokey to an outsider.

A consumer’s consuming insistence that anything, everything, be translated into the vernacular of the market could be the actual mission statement of an organ like The New York Times. Its duty to bring to the consumer’s table a predigested version of any novelty in a form accessible to their palate.

Must we accept this presumption?

Should we feed it?

“Any press is good press!” Or so they say.

It wasn’t Paul’s decision to frame this story around Dark Mountain and then present a profile of him, his background, his writing.

It’s probably not Daniel Smith’s “fault” either….

Here we have an example of how any push to “gain recognition.” “Find a wider audience.” Becomes another aspect of our predicament. Visibility and broad name recognition are not “problems to be solved.” Nothing in our over-arching predicament can be reduced in this way without trapping us in futility.

We are left with the spectacle of watching as cramps and spasms ripple through sleepwalkers’ bodies. Presented in a form that is easily processed. Sleepers return to their dreams.

What has happened is that a show has been made of informing the populace of a “trend.” We are left to pass around a token of a most glancing familiarity that leaves its subject as opaque to our understanding as it ever was.

We gain the tenuous advantage of being able to say,

“Oh yes, Dark Mountain… I read about that in The Times…. Something about desperate people who gave up… and, something about narcissists…?”

It’s dangerous disturbing sleepwalkers. Thankless work.

Let’s not conflate Dark Mountain with The Ring. Let’s not insist on holding on to the Precious as we climb its flanks. Dark Mountain is not Mordor. What happens here can not be predigested, summarized for the masses in a way that then brings us “power.”.

Dark Mountain has been vital, providing contacts and inspirations available nowhere else. Paul and Dougald have done a wonderful thing. They have, each in their own ways and with more or less success, done what they could to navigate potential misunderstandings inevitably arising around such a unique idea.

Not an idea, as indicated in their original insight as they identified with Jeffer’s Dark Mountain. This is a place. A place like no other in this culture. A place from from which it is possible to catch glimmers of other places at other times where other people encountered stories outside the narrow fevered dreams of this time and this culture. A place where we might not be blinded to the possibility of anything but a feverish continuation of this march towards death, leaving so much destruction in its wake.

The value of Dark Mountain is to be found in this. It is clear. Inarguable.

Can it be inserted into the cogs of the machine without grinding it into dust?

“You have to be there.”

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3 thoughts on “Startling Sleepwalkers, On the Prospects of Waking Them from Their Nightmares.

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful response Antonio. And to clarify your suspicions: no, I have never claimed that DM was my work alone, nor that I ever was or wanted to be a ‘leader’ (I can’t think of anything worse). Daniel came to us, not the other way around. And he tried hard to do a good job within the framework he was operating within – which to be fair, he is as aware of as us – and I think he did. But that’s the framework, and DM has always been hard to pin down. When you dine with the big media, you use a long spoon …

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    1. Paul,

      Thanks for commenting.

      It was a difficult post to write. Wanting to cover as much of what the whole event brings to mind while being fair to the people involved. I never did think you did, or could have, brought this about by seeking them out. My concerns all have to do with the framing, the entire package of expectations and assumptions big media brings to whatever it touches.

      DM is hard to pin down, thank god! But the article did try. And that’s the center from which the disturbance grew.

      I think we can all take this event as a metaphor of what DM is about and how the dominant culture will misunderstand it. Interesting how that misunderstanding is a reversed reflection of what can be said about this amorphous, but for me powerful, catalytic moment!

      Can stories outside the common assumptions be understood by those unwilling, or unable to leave those common assumptions behind?

      We’ll see!

      Enjoying The Wake! Damn fine!

      Tony

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